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Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Editor's Note: Now that the Blues and Capitals have gotten off the Stanley Cup schneid, there's arguably no NHL franchise more "due" to win a Cup than the Sharks. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the five biggest threats to San Jose's championship aspirations in the relatively near future. We conclude with the emerging competition around the league.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Sharks have missed the playoffs a whopping total of two times. 

That's a lot of postseason games. And yet, San Jose has never ended up on top. Moving forward, the greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win their first Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future will be the same one that has gotten in the way in all previous seasons in franchise history: the rest of the NHL.

There are currently 31 teams in the league. A 32nd -- the unnamed Seattle expansion franchise -- will join in 2021-22. The Sharks won't have to go through each and every one of them to raise the Cup, but there's more than enough to ruin their dreams.

Let's start small and look solely at the Pacific Division. San Jose has yet to win a division title under the new conference format, with last season's second-place finish in the Pacific being their best yet. The Flames improved by 23 points over the previous season to win the division title, and they're not going to fall off anytime soon.

Neither is the Sharks' newest major rival -- the Vegas Golden Knights. In two seasons in the league, they've given San Jose fits. The two sides are now at one postseason series apiece, but it wouldn't shock anyone if there were several more in the coming years.

Those three were the only Pacific teams to qualify for the playoffs last season, but the ones that didn't won't be down for long. The Coyotes are loaded with promising young players, the Canucks and Ducks are in the process of retooling, the Kings have nowhere to go but up and the Oilers have the best player in the NHL.

When Seattle joins the Pacific in 2020, San Jose better pray it doesn't hit the ground running like Vegas did in its expansion season.

Now let's move to the other division in the Western Conference. The Blues just defeated the Sharks on their way to winning the Cup, and they finished third in the Central Division. The Predators and Jets have some of the deepest rosters in the NHL, the Stars just added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, and the Avalanche have an abundance of young talent and cap space to continue their ascension. The Blackhawks just added another top-three draft pick, and while the Wild might not be headed in the right direction, a turnaround isn't out of the question.

That's just the West.

In the East, there's the record-setting Lightning, the always-formidable Bruins, Auston Matthews' Maple Leafs, Sidney Crosby's Penguins, the threatening Capitals and a bunch of teams poised to take a major leap in the coming years.

There's been formidable competition for the Sharks every season they've been in the NHL. It's not anything new, and is the main reason why they are one of 11 franchises yet to win a Stanley Cup. Of those 11, only the Canucks and Sabres have appeared in more playoff games than the Sharks in their respective franchise histories, and both Vancouver and Buffalo entered the league 21 seasons before San Jose did.

The Sharks can prepare for the upcoming expansion draft. They can hold out hope there won't be another lockout, use financial creativity to create more salary cap space and balance the roster with younger players to offset the aging core. All of that is within their control. 

[RELATED: Why salary cap issues are threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

The 30 other NHL teams -- soon to be 31 -- most definitely are not.

The greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win a Stanley Cup in the relatively near future is the same one they've yet to prove they can overcome.

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2015-16 team ranks in franchise history

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2015-16 team ranks in franchise history

Editor's note: In honor of Shark Week, NBC Sports California will look back at the five best teams from Sharks franchise history. Numerous factors have been taken into consideration, including overall team success, roster makeup, historical significance and more. We continue with the 2015-16 Sharks.

The 2015-16 season was one of firsts for the Sharks. 

It was their first season with Peter DeBoer behind the bench as head coach, and the first with Martin Jones in net. Joe Pavelski wore the captain's "C," Tomas Hertl scored 20-plus goals and Brent Burns finished as a Norris Trophy, all for the first time in their respective careers. 

The biggest first, however, came for the franchise in the postseason. The Sharks advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final in the 2016, after three previous appearances in the Western Conference final ended two wins shy of getting there. While the season didn't end with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau lifting the Cup, San Jose got over a hump that had dogged the franchise for most of its second decade. 

Here's a look back at the 2015-16 Sharks, the second-best team in franchise history. 

Why they're the best

The Sharks hired DeBoer just over a month after mutually parting ways with Todd McLellan. San Jose struggled in McLellan's final season behind the bench, falling to the middle of the pack in 5-on-5 puck possession a year after finishing in the top five by most metrics. Much of that decline stemmed from a diminished roster after the Sharks declared themselves a "tomorrow team" after blowing a three-games-to-none series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the previous season, and San Jose missed the postseason in 2014-15 for the first time in over a decade. 

In 2015-16, the Sharks rebounded as a strong puck-possession team. Free-agent signings Joonas Donskoi (11 goals, 25 assists) and Joel Ward (21 goals, 22 assists) gave San Jose some much-needed secondary offense behind the likes of Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Hertl and Logan Couture, and chipped in some key goals during the team's playoff run. Defenseman Paul Martin, who also was signed as a free agent in 2015, proved to be a steadying presence on the blue line and developed strong chemistry with Burns in the bearded blue liner's second season back on defense. 

San Jose arguably was at its deepest in net, too. Alex Stalock struggled as the team's backup, and was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal that brought James Reimer to the Sharks. Reimer proved to be exactly what the Sharks needed, posting a .938 save percentage and three shutouts in eight starts for San Jose down the stretch. As the unquestioned starter, Jones won more games (37) and had a higher regular-season save percentage (.918) than he has since. He also matched the franchise record for playoff shutouts (three), back-stopping the team to the Cup Final.

Oh yeah, there's that whole "winning the Western Conference" thing, which no Sharks team ever did before or has done since. That run, which included a revenge win over the Kings in the first round, counts for something. 

Why they're not

It would be unfair to call the Sharks' 24th season pedestrian, considering it ended with an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.  But, there arguably were more impressive San Jose teams which didn't make it that far in the postseason.

Twelve regular seasons in Sharks history ended with more points than the 2015-16 campaign. San Jose had a better goal-differential in seven seasons, scored more goals in 10, allowed fewer in 12 and won more games in six. Those teams ahead of the 2015-16 squad didn't make it to the Final, of course, but they didn't have the same postseason path as these Sharks. 

The Kings, like the Sharks, also were coming off a year in which they missed the playoffs, and weren't the same team that reverse-swept San Jose two seasons prior. The Nashville Predators pushed the Sharks in a seven-game Stanley Cup playoff second-round series, but Nashville's first-round upset of the Anaheim Ducks meant the Sharks avoided a team that won the Pacific Division and beat them three out of four times in the regular season. The St. Louis Blues, whom the Sharks eliminated in the Western Conference final, did finish the regular season with the third-most points. Still, facing St. Louis meant San Jose avoided the Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn-led Dallas Stars. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins posed a real challenge in the Stanley Cup Final, utilizing superior depth and speed en route to eliminating the Sharks in a six-game series. While Pittsburgh and San Jose were close on the scoreboard, the Penguins controlled 54.7 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 62.2 percent of the high-danger chances. Jones kept the Sharks in that series, but the Penguins clearly were the better team. 

No team wins a Stanley Cup without any luck, but the circumstances of the Sharks' run to the Final are worth taking into account. 

[RELATED: Projecting Sharks' protected list for 2021 expansion draft]

Verdict

Of course, so is the end result. Being the second-to-last team standing at the end of a playoff run, as the 2015-16 Sharks were, is better than any other team that has worn the uniform to date.

The Cup Final appearance also represented something of a culmination for the much-maligned Thornton and Marleau, who bore the bulk of the criticism over the previous decade as the Sharks failed to make it out of the conference final. No two players have played more games for San Jose, and it was fitting that they were on the team for the franchise's first appearance on the NHL's biggest stage -- even if it came closer to the end of their careers rather than the middle of their prime. 

Had Thornton, Marleau and the Sharks lifted the Cup three years ago, the 2015-16 team undoubtedly would top this list -- as they surely do for many San Jose fans. But the 2015-16 season ended without a championship, just as every campaign that preceded it and subsequently has followed. 

We firmly are in the highly-subjective nit-picking portion of this series, but that leaves just enough room for another team to take the top spot. 

Best teams in Sharks history

No. 5: 2001-02 
No. 4:
2005-06
No. 3: 2018-19

NHL playoff predictions 2019: Who'll be left standing with Stanley Cup?

NHL playoff predictions 2019: Who'll be left standing with Stanley Cup?

The best postseason tournament in all of professional sports is about to begin.

The NHL regular season is over and done with. The playoffs matchups are set.

And. Here. We. Go.

This year has the potential to be one of the wilder playoffs in recent memory. On one side of the bracket -- the East -- there's a select group of teams in a tier unto themselves. One of those teams -- the Lightning -- just tied the NHL record for most wins in a season, and posted a plus-103 goal differential. No other team finished better than plus-62.

They're your prohibitive favorites, but face arguably the toughest path to the Cup Final of any division winner.

In the Western Conference, well, it's anybody's guess who will make it out alive. Can the upstart Flames finish off an already successful season with a dream finish? Which heavyweight makes it out of the Central? Can the Sharks finally get over the hump?

Here's how I see it all playing out:

First-round predictions

Western Conference

Flames over Avalanche in six
Golden Knights over Sharks in six
Predators over Stars in five
Jets over Blues in seven

Eastern Conference

Lightning over Blue Jackets in four
Bruins over Maple Leafs in six
Capitals over Hurricanes in seven
Penguins over Islanders in six

That's right, I expect seven of the eight semifinalists from a year ago to make it back to that round once again. The only team that fails to do so? San Jose.

The Sharks are playing their worst hockey of the season. They're banged up -- who knows what to expect out of Erik Karlsson, and Timo Meier's recent injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Oh, and they can't make it out of the first few minutes of a game without being scored on.

[RELATED: Sharks feeling confident heading into series vs. Vegas]

The Knights have had San Jose's number since coming into the league. It pains me to say it, but I don't see reason why that will change.

Second-round predictions

Western Conference

Knights over Flames in seven
Predators over Jets in seven

Eastern Conference

Bruins over Lightning in seven
Penguins over Capitals in seven

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and each of these winners, minus the Knights, has had an entire year to chill.

As great as the Lightning have been -- and I mean great -- I'm going out on a limb and predicting the Bruins avenge their second-round elimination at the hands of Tampa Bay last year. I like whichever team emerges from this series to go all the way.

Same goes for the Penguins and Predators -- the vengeance part, that is.

Calgary's somewhat surprising season ends in a dramatic Game 7 loss to a team that has played in far more big games in recent memory.

Conference finals predictions

Western Conference:

Predators over Knights in six

Eastern Conference:

Bruins over Penguins in six

Vegas' luck finally runs out. Marc-Andre Fleury, still not at full strength, fails to provide the kind of staunch goaltending that proved so vital to the Golden Knights' dramatic run a year ago. Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, steals a couple games and gets some of the critics off his back. Nashville makes it back to the Cup Final for the first time since losing to the Penguins two years ago.

Pittsburgh won't meet them there, though. Worn down from an extremely physical series with the Capitals, the Penguins don't have the requisite energy to keep up with the Bruins' multi-layered attack. Boston's depth proves to be the deciding factor this late in the postseason grind.

Stanley Cup Final prediction

Bruins over Predators in six

I know, I know. Hasn't the city of Boston won enough lately?

When it rains, it pours.

In a battle of attrition, the Bruins do just enough to become champions. Nashville's defense has their hands full with Boston's top line, and the Bruins' 3rd-ranked power play vastly outperforms that of the Predators, which ranked dead last in the league during the regular season.

David Pastrnak scores the series-winner in Nashville in overtime of Game 6. The Cup eludes P.K. Subban at least one more year.